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Wisconsin defensive coaches, players prepare for high-octane Bowling Green offense

Pace, personnel and communication have been stressed after Wisconsin's bye week.

Wisconsin safety Michael Caputo after intercepting a pass vs. Western Illinois on Sept. 6.
Wisconsin safety Michael Caputo after intercepting a pass vs. Western Illinois on Sept. 6.
Grey Satterfield

MADISON -- Wisconsin head coach Gary Andersen addressed the media Thursday evening, two days before the Wisconsin Badgers face MAC preseason favorite Bowling Green. After their first of two bye weeks, the Badgers say they're rested and prepared for a team that turned some heads on one side of the ball against Indiana last weekend.

Former Baylor assistant Dino Babers brought to Bowling Green an up-tempo, spread offense from his time with the Bears and Eastern Illinois that put up staggering numbers against the Hoosiers. With backup quarterback James Knapke in the game, Bowling Green ran an astounding 113 total plays, amassed 571 total yards and averaged one play every 16.6 seconds en route to a 45-42 last-minute victory.

With a week of preparation, does Andersen feel better now than he did on Monday about his team's ability to handle an up-tempo offense?

"It's nice to have time," Andersen said. "I kind of look at it like you feel when you're gonna play the option.

"Back in the day, when you used to get ready to play Air Force, you kind of felt like you had a good plan, and you never knew until the first drive. It's so important in games like this -- to feel the tempo and the pace and understand, because you can't duplicate it, but I feel good about it.

"We've played pretty well against some pace teams before, and we'll have to handle the pace plays this week mentally through the communication, and we'll also have to understand that we're going to have to handle it physically."

Pace was a key word thrown around this week. Wednesday afternoon, defensive coordinator Dave Aranda described the volatility it provides an offense.

"What pace does is it injects momentum with a whole bunch of steroids and it just blows it up, because everything happens so much faster," Aranda said.

Aranda's seen it firsthand during and before his time in Madison. Against LSU on Aug. 30, the Tigers wore down the Badgers' defense in the fourth quarter with a quick three-play, 53-yard drive that only took 1:23 for the go-ahead score by running back Kenny Hilliard.

Aranda also referenced a game against Louisiana Tech in 2012 where his Utah State defense held the Bulldogs to 182 yards and three points in the first half. The second half was a different story, however, as the Bulldogs scored on six of their eight drives in the second half.

Louisiana Tech ran 108 plays that November day, just five shy of what Bowling Green ran against Indiana last Saturday. Utah State still won that game 48-41 in overtime, despite allowing the Bulldogs to run 45 plays in the fourth quarter. Aranda talked to the team earlier this week about the offensive track meet and how the game can change so quickly.

"That's what pace does," Aranda said.

"Everything is fitted up, everything is great. One bad thing happens, and it's very easy for one bad play to roll into three bad plays, six bad plays. All of a sudden it's a drive with 12 bad plays, and so that's the challenge."

"One bad thing happens, and it's very easy for one bad play to roll into three bad plays, six bad plays. All of a sudden it's a drive with 12 bad plays, and so that's the challenge." -Dave Aranda

Wisconsin's coaches have stressed communication and a team-orientated approach for dealing with this brand of offense. Bowling Green, for the majority of the game against Indiana, utilized a 10 or 11 personnel in a shotgun or pistol look. The Falcons sometimes utilized a trips formation -- three wide receivers to one side -- where the inside No. 3 receiver is actually in the position where a typical No. 2 receiver would line up in most offenses. This allows the offense to take advantage of the full width of the field.

According to sophomore cornerback Sojourn Shelton, the Badgers' defense also looked at where the running back lines up. At some points of the game, junior running back Travis Greene split out wide as a receiver, leaving an empty backfield, in certain formations, along with standing beside Knapke or behind him in a shotgun or pistol look, respectively.

So how do you prepare for such a fast offense, especially one that in its last drive vs. Indiana ran 12 plays in one minute, 50 seconds (one every 9.1 seconds)? The Badgers actually have tried to run plays even quicker than their opponent.

"It's two scouts [offenses] going," Shelton said.

"So it might be a scout running a go route, and it's another scout waiting at the line for the next play to get going, and coach Andersen constantly moving the ball. Like I said, we were running plays within seconds, faster than we've seen in the game, so I'm sure we'll be fine."

Keeping up with the offensive pace will allow Wisconsin to substitute the correct personnel to counter Bowling Green's 21st-ranked offense. Senior linebacker Marcus Trotter noted the defense will have specific sub-packages for the different looks that'll be thrown at the Badgers, rather than having packages designed for third-down looks.

The different personnel groupings for the faster, lighter defense should help save the players' legs, though UW stressed adjustments on and off the field have to be accelerated to put the right groups onto the field at the right time.

That will be key against the Falcons' offense that passed 73 times against the Hoosiers, and for the season has passed on about 56 percent of its offensive snaps. The Badgers will have to contend with true freshman wide receiver Roger Lewis, who leads the Falcons with 30 receptions through three games. Four different BSU receivers already have 10 or more receptions this season.

Though many focus on the passing game, the Badgers will also have to defend against a Falcons running game that capitalizes on confusion and missed assignments. Greene leads Bowling Green in rushing with 350 yards and a 5.7 yards-per-carry average.

Communication in midst of chaos and reading the plays correctly -- whether passing or running -- will ultimately decide the success Wisconsin has against a worthy opponent in Bowling Green.

"That's why they're so good, because they go so fast that they can fool defenses, and defenses might get confused," Trotter said.

"If we just really communicate and really focus -- it is 3rd-and-8 but they could run still -- just make sure to diagnosis the play, and just be in the right position and make the play."